Painful intercourse can occur for reasons that range from structural problems to psychological concerns. Many women have painful intercourse at some point in their lives.
The medical term for painful intercourse is dyspareunia (dis-puh-ROO-nee-uh), defined as persistent or recurrent genital pain that occurs just before, during or after intercourse. Talk to your doctor if you're having painful intercourse. Treatments focus on the cause, and can help eliminate or lessen this common problem.
If you have painful intercourse, you might feel:
- Pain only at sexual entry (penetration)
- Pain with every penetration, including putting in a tampon
- Deep pain during thrusting
- Burning pain or aching pain
- Throbbing pain, lasting hours after intercourse
When to see a doctor
If you have recurrent pain during sex, talk to your doctor. Treating the problem can help your sex life, your emotional intimacy and your self-image.
Physical causes of painful intercourse differ, depending on whether the pain occurs at entry or with deep thrusting. Emotional factors might be associated with many types of painful intercourse.
Pain during penetration might be associated with a range of factors, including:
Not enough lubrication. This is often the result of not enough foreplay. A drop in estrogen levels after menopause or childbirth or during breast-feeding also can be a cause.
Certain medications are known to affect sexual desire or arousal, which can decrease lubrication and make sex painful. These include antidepressants, high blood pressure medications, sedatives, antihistamines and certain birth control pills.
- Injury, trauma or irritation. This includes injury or irritation from an accident, pelvic surgery, female circumcision or a cut made during childbirth to enlarge the birth canal (episiotomy).
- Inflammation, infection or skin disorder. An infection in your genital area or urinary tract can cause painful intercourse. Eczema or other skin problems in your genital area also can be the problem.
- Vaginismus. These involuntary spasms of the muscles of the vaginal wall can make penetration painful.
- Congenital abnormality. A problem present at birth, such as the absence of a fully formed vagina (vaginal agenesis) or development of a membrane that blocks the vaginal opening (imperforate hymen), could cause dyspareunia.
Deep pain usually occurs with deep penetration. It might be worse in certain positions. Causes include:
- Certain illnesses and conditions. The list includes endometriosis, pelvic inflammatory disease, uterine prolapse, retroverted uterus, uterine fibroids, cystitis, irritable bowel syndrome, hemorrhoids and ovarian cysts.
- Surgeries or medical treatments. Scarring from pelvic surgery, including hysterectomy, can cause painful intercourse. Medical treatments for cancer, such as radiation and chemotherapy, can cause changes that make sex painful.
Emotions are deeply intertwined with sexual activity, so they might play a role in sexual pain. Emotional factors include:
- Psychological issues. Anxiety, depression, concerns about your physical appearance, fear of intimacy or relationship problems can contribute to a low level of arousal and a resulting discomfort or pain.
- Stress. Your pelvic floor muscles tend to tighten in response to stress in your life. This can contribute to pain during intercourse.
- History of sexual abuse. Not every woman with dyspareunia has a history of sexual abuse, but if you have been abused, it can play a role.
It can be difficult to tell whether emotional factors are associated with dyspareunia. Initial pain can lead to fear of recurring pain, making it difficult to relax, which can lead to more pain. You might start avoiding sexual intercourse if you associate it with the pain.
Jan. 12, 2018
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- Frequently asked questions. Gynecologic problems FAQ020. When sex is painful. American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. https://www.acog.org/Patients/FAQs/When-Sex-Is-Painful. Accessed Oct. 31, 2017.
- Dyspareunia. The Merck Manual Professional Version. http://www.merckmanuals.com/professional/gynecology_and_obstetrics/sexual_dysfunction_in_women/dyspareunia.html?qt=dyspareunia&alt=sh. Accessed Oct. 31, 2017.
- Barbiere R. Differential diagnosis of sexual pain in women. https://www.uptodate.com/contents/search. Accessed Oct. 31, 2017.
- Alligood-Percoco NR, et al. Risk factors for dyspareunia after first childbirth. Obstetrics & Gynecology. 2016;128:512.
- Archer DF, et al. Treatment of pain at sexual activity (dyspareunia) with intravaginal dehydroepiandrosterone (prasterone). Menopause: The Journal of the North American Menopause Society. 2015;22:950.
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Painful intercourse (dyspareunia)